Disney World Restaurant Inconsistency?!

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How helpful are Disney restaurant reviews? That’s a question I found myself pondering as we finished our meal at Via Napoli last weekend. We have been to Via Napoli before, and we weren’t impressed. The food was mediocre the previous time, and the place certainly didn’t live up to the hype. We had determined that we wouldn’t eat there for a couple of years, and would instead try other restaurants until Via Napoli’s turn in the “natural dining order” came up again. However, some friends were heading to Via Napoli, so we figured we’d tag along for camaraderie and joyous times. We didn’t even really plan on eating anything.

However, going to a Disney restaurant with the plan not to eat anything is like watching the Norway film and expecting to stay awake. It just doesn’t happen. So, we found ourselves sampling some of the appetizers on our table. Then, we found ourselves trying both styles of pizza on the table. “Not eating anything” quickly turned into “gorging ourselves” and we ended up saying yum and wow about every 5 seconds.

Succinctly put, the food was amazing. All of it. The calamari was crisp, perfectly cooked, and not over-salted. The Salami e Provolone was flavorful without being overly greasy, and even the Eggplant Caponata–something I wouldn’t normally sample–was delicious. And that’s just the appetizers. The pizza? The pizza was incredible, with the cheese pizza soft, perfectly cooked, and with excellent tasting crust. Likewise, the pepperoni pizza was also stellar. It went from being “nothing that knocks my socks off” as I called it in my previous review, to being an excellent pizza, and a worthy competitor to many real-world pizza places at which we’ve eaten. (Even though we favor Chicago-style deep dish pies, we loved these thin ones!)

This is not the first time we’ve had wildly different experiences at the same restaurant two different times we’ve eaten there. In 2006, Coral Reef was a colossal disappointment. Then, in 2010, the place was amazing, serving some of the best food we’ve had in Walt Disney World.  This got me thinking, and contemplating some of the mixed reviews for other restaurants at Walt Disney World. For example, we were incredibly disappointed with The Plaza, but we’ve read some amazing reviews of that place. Did we simply have a bad meal there? Similarly, we’ve had a couple of great meals at California Grill, but we’ve heard from others that, for the purported level of cuisine offered there, the place is really overrated. While I love reading and reviewing restaurants at which we eat, this inconsistency made me wonder if reviews are really all that helpful.

To be sure, there are some restaurants that have a clear consensus. The cuisine at Tony’s and Sci-Fi Dine-In is pretty much universally panned (although Sci-Fi Dine-In is one of my favorite Disney restaurants due to the amazing theming!). Conversely, few people give Jiko, Kona Cafe, Citricos, and Sanaa poor reviews. In cases like these, where the disapproval or approval rating hovers at a high level, it’s a safe bet that you’ll have a similar experience. However, what about the restaurants like The Wave, Coral Reef, Via Napoli, or Kouzzina that receive a mix of positive and negative reviews?

If 10 people review these restaurants, and 6 report having excellent cuisine and service at these restaurants, and 4 report having awful cuisine and service, how helpful is that to you if you’re only eating there once? Even worse, what if you only stumble upon the positive (or only the negative) reviews? What if you make a decision not to eat at a particular restaurant after only reading one review, which happened to be a negative outlier? While I am of the mindset that every Disney restaurant is worth trying at least once regardless of any reviews I read, others who visit Disney less frequently may not have this luxury, and may only want to eat at restaurants that are more likely to offer excellent meals and service.

To this end, there are two solutions to this dilemma with which you’re faced when planning where to eat at Walt Disney World. Disney could improve the consistency at its restaurants so it’s clear which ones are definitively “good” or “bad.” Since “good” and “bad” are largely subjective value-judgments, plus me mandating that Disney improve its consistency doesn’t really make it happen, this probably isn’t the best solution. Instead, you should read a large cross section of reviews on various websites (even single sites that offer aggregate scores of many guests can skew one way or the other based upon the tone of the site) to determine where you want to eat.

Alternatively, you could read the reviews for comments on aspects of restaurants that are more static: ambiance, type of menu, and theme. For example, T-REX Café is a loud restaurant serving American cuisine in a pre-historic environment that will likely appeal to the dinosaur lovers in your family. This description is more objective, and two guests, going on different days in different months, are likely to both experience this. As those same guests describe their experience more, things that are more likely to vary between the two include quality of food and service. Heck, the same person could go to the same restaurant ten different times and give it a different score out of 10 each time. Some restaurants at Walt Disney World are that inconsistent!

With this, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read Disney restaurant reviews. You absolutely should. For most Disney restaurants, there is a clear consensus. However, for those restaurants that get mixed reviews, maybe you should dig a little deeper, and determine whether the theme, style of cuisine, and ambiance are things that will likely appeal to your party. We have found that we’ve enjoyed a lot of restaurants that generally get less-than-stellar reviews. It’s up to you to determine whether you want to take a gamble on a restaurant with mixed reviews that might, for you, be a diamond in the rough or merely a lump of coal.

How do you determine which restaurants you’ll visit at Walt Disney World? Are there restaurants you love or hate that seem to elicit the opposite reaction from many other guests? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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Posted on October 7, 2011

38 Responses to “Disney World Restaurant Inconsistency?!”

  • “Yum and wow every five seconds” – LOL!

    This is a really balanced analysis. One other thing to consider is whether you generally like the type of food served at the restaurant. I sometimes see negative reviews of Sanaa or Restaurant Marrakesh from people who will eat nothing by burgers and fries. If you always hate couscous, then it’s not a fair assessment to say that Marrakesh serves bad food. As you said, reading a range of reviews helps to even out the information.

    • That’s a great point!

      There’s a certain lesser-quality WDW podcast I USED to listen to, until they started trashing Restaurant Marrakesh. After making fun of it in a borderline xenophobic way for about 3 minutes, it was revealed that few to none of them had ever actually eaten there!
      I realized that these people were all the “burger and fries” or Nine Dragons type (if you know what I mean), so I really didn’t care what their opinions were!

      I have a hard time listening to the food opinions of someone who isn’t open-minded about food. As nice as it is to hear from a picky eater that they like the burgers Pecos Bill’s, it means much more to me if I hear it from someone like, say, Lou Mongello, who is willing to try anything!

    • Although most references/jokes I drop into these posts are done solely for my own amusement, I’m glad at least someone caught that “yum and wow” one!

      Good point on the reviews, too!

  • I also just end up going to the same restaurants, Ohana, Boma, Plaza. It’s hard to try new places when you want to hit up all your faves.

    • Totally understand. Just think, though, a new MOST FAVORITE restaurant of yours could be waiting to be discovered! I have a tough time moving beyond my favorites, too, but I want to try every restaurant at Walt Disney World!

  • This rings bells with me as I can only visit WDW every few YEARS, and it’s only been in recent years that I’ve become aware how impressive some of the dining is, so I have to be really selective.

    These days I take the following line with reviews of anything, from restaurants to hotels to attractions:

    Read only detailed reviews, ignore star ratings, and find out exactly what the reviewer thought was good or bad. It might be that what’s a horrendous deal-breaker for them is something you don’t care about or actively like (especially with something as subjective as food). It also might be that what they find delicious you find disgusting.

    Star ratings are far too subjective to mean anything. Some people won’t give low ratings because they feel mean, others want the moon on a stick to give out five stars!

    I ignore anything that can’t explain why something is great or awful. Which is why I go to sources like Touring Plans, where people take the time to explain properly! Thank you!

    • I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I think star ratings are still useful when used as a supplement to detailed and articulate text. I never give them any weight if someone just rates a restaurant via stars, and offers no accompanying explanation, though.

  • Nice article, we had the same problem, in 2007, we were with a group of 10 and ate at Kona and had a terrible meal. Bad service, blah food, everything disappointed. In 2010, we tried it again and the meal may have been the best we had that week. In 2010 the meal we had in the Wave was less than memorable, but we may try it again.

  • It’s also worth considering that many people only review really good or really bad experiences. While there are certainly folks who review every meal, lots of times a really superlative or a really awful meal will cause someone who otherwise doesn’t spend much time online to hop online and let everyone they know what a wonderful (or awful) time they just had.

  • The Norway film puts you to sleep? The beginning of that thing scares the crap out of me.

  • I had my first meal at The Plaza this past weekend, and was disappointed. The Rueben was fatty and tough. Also disappointed in Columbia Harbor House, which also generally gets decent reviews. Good food in the Magic Kingdom appears hard to come by, but we have had consistent luck with lunch at the Crystal Palace. Everything was fresh and tasty, and the buffet offers a nice selection. Following this pattern, we might try Tony’s next time and find ourselves pleasantly surprised by a decent meal, despite the poor reviews.

    • Also, the buffet breakfast we had at The Wave was FABULOUS! Well worth going out of our way to eat there.

      • I’ve heard really great things about The Wave’s breakfast. I think we’ll have to give that a try in December. We find eating there is actually convenient, given its proximity to the Magic Kingdom.

  • Everyone gives Tony’s such a bad review but it’s one of my favorite restaurants!! I’ve been there 3 times and consistently get good service. If fact our service at Tony’s last week was so much better than the service we had at Ohana just the night before! The food is good, filling, quality Italian food. My daughter got the children’s fresh fish of the day, which was Salmon, and preferred Tony’s version over Coral Reef’s!! She said Coral Reef’s version was under-cooked! It’s not “chef-boy-r-dee” quality like i’ve read in the past, and the desserts are some of the best theme park desserts around! My advice…..judge the restaurants you are interested in for yourself.

  • It’s important to read the details of amateur reviews. Via Napoli is an excellent example. They use a wood burning oven which “chars” the crust. Some people give negative reviews, complaining that they found their pizza was burnt. But others may realize that an authentic Neapolitan pizza is supposed to be a bit burnt, so this could be a positive feature for someone else. While there is a certain amount of subjectivity in any review, if you read a wide assortment of reviews and look for the more objective statements, you can get a better sense of whether it is the right restaurant for you.

  • We had a great meal at CA Grill in October 2009. We always enjoy Crystal Palace. Chef Mickeys for breakfast in 2009 was excellent, but not as stellar for breakfast in December 2010. It was still fine, just not great. Also in December 2010 we loved Via Napoli and Les Chefs de France for lunch, but had a truly gross dinner at Le Cellier. Oh, the salt…on some dishes it wasn’t too bad, but on others was out of control. And on some of those it was the same exact dish served to different people in our party! The service was also poor – slow and unresponsive. We are nice, polite diners…smiling and understanding…we don’t take out our frustrations over food prep on the servers. We do, however, like our water glass to be refilled at least once during a meal…especially a two hour plus meal if we have asked for more water with a nice “please” and a smile. And how many times should one have to ask for the check (still with a please and a smile, I might add) when the last course has been over for more than 20 minutes and you need to get to the Candlelight Processional? Two? Three? Five times seemed to be pushing it in our opinion. Oh, and did I mention that our server put her thumb in my son’s chocolate “moose” while serving it? Not so moosey, or hygienic. It was our worst meal ever at WDW, and since there are so many other restaurants that we enjoy we will probably not go back for years – if ever.

    With that said, most of the food and service we have in the restaurants of WDW are very good and very enjoyable. It is far more common that we encounter truly great servers who elevate our dining experience with their great attention to detail, attentive service, and positive attitudes. Our dining servers at WDW restaurants have been responsible for some truly magical memories on our trips.

    • I totally understand what you’re saying, and one bad experience can really sour you on a place, but I would never predicate my decision not to eat at a particular restaurant based solely (or in your case, mostly) on service. That same night, if you arrived 10 minutes later, you might have had an excellent server who really made it easy to overlook the salt problems. I’m not a huge fan of Le Cellier, but we’ve always had EXCEPTIONAL service there. I’d give it a second chance!

      • I agree with you about the service. We are almost always willing to give a restaurant a second chance if it was only service. However a good number of our dishes were actually too salty to eat. I only mentioned it briefly, but the food was yuck. (And we have a wide range of dining experiences in haute cuisine to food truck-style restaurants from various travels all over on which we base our food opinions. We’re pretty adventurous foodies, but not total food snobs.) Le Cellier has a bit of a reputation of having problems with salt, so for it to crop up that often I worry that for whatever reason it is a systemic issue for this restaurant. That causes me to pause when considering whether to return or not. Also, with our limited number of days in the World each year it is difficult to risk one of our “precious” mealtimes on a second chance since there are so many other opportunities for great meals. I won’t say never, but given those reasosn – and the difficulty in securing an ADR in the first place – it will probably be a loooong time before we re-visit.

  • by Andrew Carrieri on October 7, 2011, at 9:45 am EST

    Good points Tom. Len brought up a prime example of this on an episode of WDW Today a while back. Len and many other people like the buffet at Tusker House (i’ve never eaten there so I have no idea)but the dining reviewer for the Unofficial Guide gave it 1.5 stars. To me I am not a foodie so I’d rather go to a 2 star restaurant such as Sci-Fi than a 5 star restaurant such as Victoria and Alberts. IMO, it’s more about the type of cuisine than the star rating.

  • I am so glad you brought this up!
    I ate once at San Angel Inn in 2000 with my dad and I remember it being one of the best Mexican meals I’ve ever had. So, when I went last year on my honeymoon, going back was a no-brainer. But I was so disappointed! The service was inattentive, the food was all overcooked (especially the flan) and overall it was a bad experience. How were the two experiences SO different? Had the restaurant gone THAT downhill, or had my taste buds changed? For some reason, I had never considered that it could have been just as inconsistent back in 2000, and that I was one of the lucky ones that got a great meal that day!

    On our trip last year, I was surprised at our level of disappointment in The Coral Reef. I was so excited for it, as the atmosphere sounded magical, the reviews seemed more than passable and the menu was right up my alley. But the Mahi Mahi and Laughing Bird Shrimp were both overcooked! But that was a mistake made by one cook – I don’t believe that they intended to serve it that way. I’ve since spoken to other people who have had the same dish, and theirs was not overcooked! So, maybe I shouldn’t just write these restaurants off so easily? I can see trying either San Angel Inn or Coral Reef again someday.

    Conversely, this topic worries me about our upcoming trip, in just over a month. We made ADRs for some of our favorite restaurants from last year – California Grill, 50′s Prime Time, Hollywood Brown Derby and Biergarten. Perhaps they won’t be nearly as good this time!

    But let me ask this: are there certain dishes at a restaurant that are always good? Something that you know, even if the rest of the meal is bad, at least THIS will be good. For example, as anyone ever NOT liked the Cheddar Cheese soup from Le Cellier? I wonder…

    • Yes, folk have not liked the Le Cellier cheddar cheese soup.
      Some recent negative comments from tripadvisor:
      “Too thick, too much offset by the flavor of yeasty beer”
      “too salty”
      “really disappointed in the cheese soup that everyone’s talking about. I thought it would be a pure cheese, but it had a potato flavor, and I regret wasting my appetizer on this.”
      “I wasn’t impressed with the cheese soup that’s so popular. It tasted like it had too much cooking wine or something. It was just okay.”

      • That’s hilarious!
        The person who wrote: “I thought it would be a pure cheese, but it had a potato flavor, and I regret wasting my appetizer on this.”
        What? They WANTED to eat an entire bowl of pure cheese so they were disappointed?!

    • We just ate at Hollywood Brown Derby (for the first time), and I’d be absolutely shocked if that restaurant is EVER not amazing. It’s probably the best meal we’ve had in a theme park. Totally redeems the rest of the Studio’s subpar dining options (although they’re standouts for ambiance).

  • Interesting. We had the opposite experience at Via Napoli. We ate there in Nov 2010 and LOVED it! Then ate there again Feb 2011 and it was not nearly as good, even though we had the same type of pizza. Maybe this restaurant is Epcot’s official roller coaster? :-)

  • Excellent points…and probably why the pros eat at the restaurant they’re reviewing at least three times before writing their review. You never know when you’ll visit a restaurant on an uncharacteristically good day or an uncharacteristically bad day.

    In the end, the only REAL way to know whether you’ll like a place…is to try it yourself, right?

  • San Angel Inn is one of our favorites, though I’ve seen a lot of negative reviews. I have been there in 95, 06, and twice in 2010. 2 of those times we were with our kids. The menu is different from your typical Mexican restaurant, so I suppose a lot of less adventerous people would be disappointed not to find the standard Chi Chis/Don Pablos kind of meals, but we very much enjoy the more unique offerings.

  • A factor I think is important and not to be overlooked: timing.

    As much as it’s important to get up early and get to Dumbo, lest you regret it when you’re waiting in line later, restaurants have an ebb and flow as well. Dining early in the cycle when it’s slower is usually the best plan.

    That means an early lunch in France (this is when WDI and WDW Management eat there, btw), getting to Via Napoli when it opens, and not trying to do Wishes viewing from California Grill.

    The busier it is, the worse the service and food is going to be. Also, you don’t want to show up right after a rush necessarily either, as they’re still busy putting out fire (figuratively and sometimes literally.. Ohana has occasional problems with this.)

    Being some of the first guests in a location for a serving period tends to work out pretty well.

    Being the very first guests seated at Artist’s Point the other day our waiter went out of his way to make conversation with us and essentially gave us priority over the parties who were seated after us.

    Similarly, I once did a dinner at California Grill as the restaurant was clearing out for the evening after a big Wishes rush. A really loud and obnoxious party was leaving, having essentially destroyed their table by having their children fling food around. We walked past that mess and my date and I were seated right against the windows with a perfect view of the Magic Kingdom.

    The waitress struck up a conversation and we ended up getting a nice wine tasting seminar since we admitted we didn’t know much about wine and what to pair with dinner. We got the full cart, multiple bottles of the waitress’ choice, and nearly a dozen glasses. We sipped, nibble some bread/cheese stuff she brought out to cleanse the palette, and eventually ordered a lovely trio of wines to go with our appetizer, entree, and dessert.

    By the time we left, the only other people in the restaurant was a honeymooning couple who were hanging out at the bar. Our waitress asked if we wanted a photo out on the balcony overlooking the Magic Kingdom – since it was still lit up and operating for a late night. Our dinner was quiet and relaxed – a mood the restaurant obviously didn’t have during the Wishes rush.

    Many folks just wont deviate from their standard dining times, particularly on vacation. If you do though, you’ll get much better service and food quality.

    • It’s not just timing for the restaurant, but also timing and expectations for the guests. If you’ve been pushing yourself harder than you should, little things that you’d ordinarily just brush off become Really Big Deals. Likewise, if you’ve read about the “Amazing that you HAVE to eat at ” it’s easy to become ‘anticipointed’ when the real thing doesn’t live up to the food-of-the-gods reviews.

      It is true that sometimes the restaurant screws up. But, I get the sense it’s also often true that the guests are playing a part too.

      • R.A. and Brian, these are excellent points. This again goes to some of the points above of reading reviews for objective information and only considering detailed reviews.

        We, for instance, never predicate any of our dining decisions (real world or Walt Disney World) on others’ statements concerning service. Now, I understand that certain management styles can breed cultures where service is better or worse, but I think it’s generally far too fluid for any reviews to provide an accurate statement of what type of service you’ll receive.

        For the reasons you mentioned above, we also typically eat really early or really late (like, last seating of the night late). There’s always a fear in the back of my head with this last seating of the night strategy that eventually we’ll have a waiter who really wants to get us out of there so he/she can go home, but it has yet to happen. Instead, they always seem to go the extra mile. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll get an anxious-to-leave waiter, but all of the great experiences we’ve had by using this strategy will compensate for the one bad experience.

        Again, great tips, guys!

  • I agree with much of this. Overwhelmingly, the quality of the food isn’t enough. I had fantastic food at both Jiko and Fultons but the ambiance at Jiko & the service at Fultons was poor enough to put me off ever returning to either place.

    Whereas Teppan Edo is our most revisited restaurant. Why? Well, we love Japanese food so there is a bias there. Also we love the fun factor of dining there. We’ll probably go back again when we visit next too. Logically I know it isn’t the ‘best’ and certainly the food at the 2 I’ve previously mentioned is better, but I love it there.

  • by Robin Worthington on October 13, 2011, at 12:41 pm EST

    Has anyone thought that maybe the chef or sous chef’s have changed? Especially if it’s been a few years, or does that not happen at Disney? There are basic recipes for cooking items, but just like I can follow my grandmother’s exact recipe with the same brands, etc and it still doesn’t taste like hers. Just a thought, just like waitstaff/cast members change overtime, those things will give you a different experience. With dinning, or any reviews really it’s all subjective. We all have differnt likings so you should read a variety of reviews to really get a good picture. Just going off one or two, really won’t help you.

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